Rebel Males

Clift, Brando and Dean

Graham McCann
Hamish Hamilton. London. 1991.
Hbk. 214 pages. Bibliography. Index. B/w photographs. £15.99.


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The cinema seems to have always been the natural home for a ragbag of marginalised characters that can be described as outlaws, rebels or outsiders. Characters played by Chaplin or Laurel and Hardy never really fitted-in with the scheme of things. Male heroes, such as Bogart presented a cynical face to the world but he usually did the right thing at the end of the picture. 

The post-World War Two period was a time of change, and old values started to be questioned and reassessed. Film noir depicted their male heroes exploring filthy urban environments like sleepwalkers in a nightmare they couldn't quite understand, or get to grips with. The old order had won the war but it wasn't suited to peace-time conditions. With the threat of nuclear annihilation the machismo of John Wayne seemed totally inappropriate. Indeed, it seemed like the kind of behaviour that could bring about global nuclear suicide in double quick time. 

The rebels of Graham McCann's excellent study are Montgomery Clift, Marlon Brando and James Dean. They are shown to be powerful products and symbols of their time. They apparently respected nothing, and rebelled against anything and everything, in real life they were even more confused and angst-ridden than their screen characters. 

All three had unhappy childhoods, their fathers were aloof or absent, their mothers were very domineering. Clift's mother took him, and his brother and sister, on European jaunts to soak-up culture and knowledge. She had aristocratic pretensions for her children that sound amusing, but in reality it made her children prisoners of her single-minded obsession. Brando's father presented a respectable front but went off to brothels, this knowledge led his mother to go on alcoholic binges. Dean had a very close relationship with his mother, but she died when he was 9-years-old, and he was brought-up by his aunt and uncle. For them childhood was a disturbing experience, when they became teenagers they had to escape and try to become independent adults. Their revolt against parental values meant an equal disrespect for the social oppression of the 1950s. They were insecure and vulnerable individuals who needed some sort of meaning for their lives. Acting for them was an excellent outlet for their feelings; they could play with different roles and feelings in a socially and (potentially) financially rewarding manner. 

McCann makes the point that the social dissent of the 1950s was replaced or disguised by sexual politics. The rebellion is exclusively centred on male characters in the movies of the period (a situation that hasn't changed much in the decades since then) females are generally passive, conventional, mother-figures. The conflict of the 'new' male rebels and the 'old' macho men is portrayed in Red River (1948). Montgomery Clift and John Wayne represented the opposing sets of values, both on and off screen. Clift was literally persecuted by director John Huston during the making of Freud (1963) who had no sympathy at all for him (Clift was often in pain as a result of a horrific car accident in 1956). Huston and Wayne were the tough father-figures that the young male rebels were trying to escape. Paradoxically in Rebel Without A Cause, Jim Stark (Dean) is shown to rebel because his father doesn't present a tough enough male role model. 
The behaviour of the rebel is self-centred and self-obsessed, their mini-revolutions against authority only makes life more difficult for everyone else. Indeed, it is often the young females who are treated like dirt or at best tolerated, certainly there is no sensitivity for their individual feelings and concerns. Although McCann doesn't mention this, it is interesting to compare Hollywood male-centred productions with the 'angry young men' portrayed in British films such as Room At The Top, Saturday Night, Sunday Morning, Billy Liar; which are equally misogynistic. 

In the 1950s the male rebel was a relatively new phenomenon. His uniform of T-shirt and jeans was lifted from the blue-collar social context and made classless and universal (one could also add that this 'uniform' is sexy whether it is worn by male or female). The legacy of their rebellion is that it has become a normal part of teenage life. What was an inarticulate need to be different, and a need to find a meaning in life that wouldn't distort or compromise their inner-most feelings, has evolved into 'conventional' rebel role models that are relatively safe and sanitised. Dean hero-worshipped Clift and Brando, in turn Elvis Presley, Bob Dylan and many other aspiring actors and rock stars followed their lead in terms of clothing, life-style and behaviour. 

Like the punk rebellion of the late 1970s, the male rebels of the 1950s both on and off screen were part of a 'swindle'. Surely a 'true' rebel wouldn't dream of Hollywood stardom and great material wealth. In the end being an actor just highlights the fact that existence in our contemporary society is nothing more than role playing. Any rebellion on screen is a sham because it panders to the system - after all Hollywood films are the products of market-forces and are backed by financial institutions. Also, we must remember that these rebel actors didn't write, produce or direct their films, others manipulated them and used them. McCann's book conveys the futility and the frustrations of the rebel male, he provides significant glimpses into their lives, films and legacy. Academic works of this type can be hard-going but this is easy to read, intelligent and insightful. 

Nigel Watson 
 
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